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Without its starting quarterback, No. 4 Penn State just could not hold on long enough on the road against No. 3 Iowa.
The Nittany Lions took a 14-3 lead into halftime, but lost senior QB Sean Clifford to an injury toward the end of the half. That left backup Ta’Quan Roberson, who hasn’t played other than garbage time, to see his first significant action. And he had to do that in Kinnick Stadium, one of the most hostile road environments in the country.
Predictably, it did not go well. The Hawkeyes stormed back in the second half and pulled out a 23-20 victory to remain undefeated and hand Penn State its first loss of the year.
The Penn State defense held on for a while, but Roberson and the offense just could not get in sync. Penn State could muster only 68 yards and three points in the second half while the Iowa offense chipped away. Consistently backed up in their own territory thanks to precision punting from Tory Taylor, the Nittany Lions committed a bevy of false start penalties and could not get anything going.
The Iowa offense, meanwhile, chipped away at the lead.
Two field goals from Caleb Shudak cut the PSU lead to 20-13 late in the third and then 20-16 midway through the fourth. Iowa finally went ahead when Spencer Petras hit Nico Ragaini on a play-action pass for a 44-yard touchdown with 6:26 to play.
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Penn State would drive just past midfield on its next drive, but a Roberson pass to Keyvone Lee on fourth-and-3 was short of the sticks, giving Iowa the stop it needed.
From there, Iowa cruised to a monster victory.
What does this mean for Iowa?
Now 6-0, Iowa has another impressive victory to add to its College Football Playoff candidacy. The clear favorite in a mediocre Big Ten West, the Hawkeyes have only division opponents on their schedule the rest of the way.
An undefeated record entering the Big Ten title game is not out of the question. This defense lived up to the hype by forcing four Penn State turnovers — two interceptions by Clifford and two more by Roberson.
Penn State has a really good defense, but the Iowa offensive line and running game were able to lean on the PSU front for long enough to have some success as the game progressed. Tyler Goodson is one of the better running backs in the country and Petras shook off a slow start to make some big throws when it mattered.
The biggest task for Kirk Ferentz and his staff will be avoiding a letdown as the Hawkeyes will likely be favored in every game moving forward.
What does this mean for Penn State?
This is a brutal loss for PSU, no doubt. The Nittany Lions, despite a few early turnovers, were completely in control early on. Everything changed when Clifford went out.
Playing in such a tough environment, Roberson never really had much of a chance. He missed some open receivers, but there were also drops and way too many penalties.
Now 5-1, Penn State is going to have to hope Clifford's injury is minor first and foremost. PSU has a bye next week before hosting Illinois on Oct. 23. The game after that is a trip to Columbus to face mighty Ohio State.
Penn State has a really good team, but this season could go downhill quickly if Clifford is out for a significant period of time. If Clifford can come back, there's plenty left on the table for the Nittany Lions.